Beauty and Paradox in the Cyclades

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Mylopotas beach Ios

Frenzy is one of the words that come close to describing the frequent scene in Santorini, each time a ferry arrives. Organized chaos would be too generous, because despite the back bone of structure that most definitely does exist – the mayhem is king. Eight hours in the sun or the stuffy artificial interior of the ferry from Athens leaves imprints upon the weary travel an increased desire for comfort, the beach, space, and the beauty of the island that awaits.

Thus the energy with which our traveler disembarks the ferry is met by an equal, yet more feverish energy – that of those eager to lap up the tourist’s money from the second foot hits dry land. Incessant offers of hotels, car rentals, cafes with free Wi-Fi and day excursions assault the traveler. Unwavering, he must hold strong and head for the public buses.

Crossing the port to the bus, a curious sight is remarked upon. Not a single sign is in Greek – like music to his ears – English seems to be the primary language here. The man selling bus tickets is more surprised than pleased at the traveler’s attempts at hello please and thank you in Greek.

Finally, the bus makes it up the road which scales a cliff from the port to Fira, the capital of the island. As he stops to check his instructions to his hotel he receives at least ten offers of other hotels. Other than vague pointing, no one seems interested in offering ahh help once they see he has already been caught. He leaves the as chaotic scene of the bus station to settle into the hotel at last, a stunning example of Cycladic architecture, white washed and simplistic – with a blue that is as close to the primary color as has ever been painted on a roof.

The walk through Fira provides mixed emotions. The town itself is beautiful, resplendent in white and architecturally consistent and accurate. Yet it is full of fat tourists walking slowly, others taking pictures of everything while seeing nothing, and stores selling items that say Santorini, or come from the island. There seem to be more tourists on this tiny island than he saw in all of Athens.

His thoughts turn to a small path through the woods back home, humble and unknown, yet leading to a pleasant stream. Featured in the local newspaper, the spot became an attraction, the trail trampled and widened, the stream always crowded. It is still beautiful, but has lost the quality of awe and untouchedness. Put drastically, it has been spoiled. The wonder remains, but there is so much that now marginalizes it. Santorini has suffered the same fate as the pleasant stream – that of human consumption.

He eats well, he sees beautiful things and remains impressed with the physical integrity of the buildings on the island. From far away, it could be 1800. The devil is up close, in the details.
He’s soon had enough, and heads to Ios, a quick ferry ride. Ios is part of the Cyclades as well, and from the moment he arrives he notes the towns look exactly as they do on Santorini, yet without their mythical status as beautiful. He is also struck with an overwhelming feeling of calm. It is not yet high season and he is alone in his hostel, and vast sections of the perfect beach are deserted, destined to be his paradise for the next few days. Soft sand and warm water, doused in tranquility.

Ios is known as a party destination that is not pretentious. He finds countless bars with cheap drinks and the slight lack in authenticity that is expected in a tourist destination. The crowd is younger and more relaxed overall than on Santorini. Still however, he profits from the hegemonic status of English, he needn’t speak a word to be approached in his own tongue rather than the local tongue.

The main town is called Chora, and there are many restaurants, a few stores and all the bars and clubs. Standing on the hill adjacent to that which Chora is built on, the town seems remarkably historic and preserved. Perfect, untouched cycladic architecture is all he sees. Yet the insides have become bars and clubs.

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Chora Cycladic architecture - courtesy of Greece ferries

It’s a strange paradox, the preservation of culture on the one hand, the artificiality of tourism on the other. Yet like town hands clasping together, they exist comfortably in close proximity. The authenticity of Cycladic culture seems to welcome the tourism. He knows Ios will worsen during high season, but for now it epitomizes the serenity of an island as the perfect destination for escape; beautiful, relaxing, isolated.

Content to have passed such a great time, he muses on his apparent victory. Some people talk about Santorini, so everyone else goes. Ios is equally gorgeous, but since it is less spoken of it is less visited. He ignored the hype, followed his intuition, beat the system and won.

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Santorini sunset

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